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An Incredible Life - Florence Blenkiron

Mike Forbes looks at the life of Florence Blenkiron who with her friend and fellow Brooklands Gold Star motorcycle racer Theresa Wallach travelled by motorbike and sidecar across Africa in the mid 1930s. This article was first published in two parts in the Brooklands Bulletin May/ Jun 2015 and Jul/ Aug 2015.

Florence  Blenkiron was  a  most  remarkable woman. Not only was she the first woman to gain a BMCRC Gold Star for exceeding 100mphfor a lap of the Brooklands Outer Circuit but, with Theresa  Wallach  rode  a  motorcycle  and  side-car from London to Cape Town in 1934-5. While her later   story   might   not   be   so   spectacular   it   nevertheless strengthens the claim that she was one of the great unsung heroines of her time.

Background

 Florence Margaret Charlotte Blenkiron was born in  Harmby,  North  Yorkshire.  According  to  the British Register Office her date of birth was in the second quarter of 1903 but subsequent censuses give her year of birth as 1904. Her father, John, was  a  grocer’s  assistant  according  to  the  1901  census but by 1911 was living at Walker House, Marrick, North Yorkshire, a substantial property estimated to be worth over £1-million pounds in2014.  By  this  time  he  described  himself  as  of  ‘private means’. Probably the house had been in the Blenkiron family for some time as in 1890 it was  reported  to  be  occupied  by  a  Mrs  Jane  Blenkiron.  How  a  grocer’s  assistant  became  ‘of private means’ and why each of his children were given three forenames when one or two would have  been  the  norm  is  open  to  conjecture    several  relatives  were  called  Margaret  so  it  appears to have been a family name.

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Florence and Theresa on the FInishing Straight at Brooklands

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This is a silent film of "The Rugged Road" featuring Theresa and Florence's trip across Africa

The Rugged Road

Brooklands

The next we know about Florence is that she was on  the  secretarial  staff  of  Sir  Robert  Hadfield, chairman  of  a  Sheffield  steel  company,  at  his  residence in London. This suggests she had some secretarial  training    was  this  in  Yorkshire  or  London? She became interested in motorcycles in her mid-teens. Florence’s  name  first  appears  in  Brooklands archives on 30th September 1933, alongside the only other female entrant, Theresa Wallach, in a Junior All-Comers’ race (it was the first time that ‘entries may be accepted from Lady Members’). Neither  lady  finished  but  three  weeks  later  Florence, on her 350cc AJS, led the field of 14 to win  the  first  race  in  which  women  and  men  competed on equal terms. Florence and Teresa became good friends and entered track and trials events as well as touring on their bikes. Some of their entries were in tough events  such  as  24-hour  trials  and  motorcycle  football. At the BMCRC Clubman’s Day on 14th April1934 the three-lap All-Comers Outer Circuit race was split into two heats, the ladies in the first and the  men  in  the  second.  As  it  was  effectively  a  time-trial there was no final race. The ladies heat had only three entrants: 1. Miss F M Blenkiron, Grindlay Peerless 500cc (handwritten note in the programme in the Brooklands Museum library: ‘did not finish’). 2. C B Bicknell (Miss M Mooret) Aerial 500cc (obviously the winner!) 3. Miss T E Wallach, Douglas 500cc (‘did not start’). Florence was  on  ‘Victor  Martin’s  speedway  JAP-engined Grindlay’  according  to  the  race  report,  dried up on the far side of the Track” according to Roger Bird.

As this is the race in which Florence gained her Gold Star it must have been on lap two. Barry Jones (who edited the second edition of Theresa Wallach’s book) suggests that Florence did not bother to complete the third lap as she knew she had  broken  the  magic  100mph  lap.  However, how   could   she   have   known   this?   It   can   reasonably be assumed that, having broken the record on lap two at 102.06mph, she was in the lead  at  the  start  of  lap  three  and  would  surely want to continue in order to win the race but ran out  of  fuel  (Mooret  won  at  an  average  90.88mph). Florence’s Grindlay-Peerless was probably the ex-Bill Lacey machine fitted with the 500cc JAP dirt-track engine prepared by Eric Fernihough. The entry sheet states that Florence had entered the  aforementioned  race  on  her  350cc  AJS whereas  according  to  the  programme  she  had  entered  this  smaller  machine  in  the  three-lap  All-Comers Outer Circuit race later that day – she was not in the first four finishers. Theresa Wallach eventually achieved her Gold Star ( the third and last to be won by a woman ) in 1939 on a 350ccFrancis Beart Norton.

During   the   mid-1930s   Florence   lived   in Sanderstead near Croydon in north east Surrey. In 1933 the idea of travelling overland to Cape Town  was  being  discussed  by  Florence  and Theresa.  This  is  said  to  have  been  sparked  by  Florence’s wish to visit relatives in South Africa and a friend who had emigrated there. It might be thought that Blenkiron was a South African family  name,  but  I  cannot  find  it  in  lists  of  surnames  for  that  country.  The  family  name of Blenkiron derives from a Cumbrian village, which was, and still is, common in North Yorkshire and the North East, and has by now spread across the UK and overseas. Florence’s mother’s family name, Ainsley, is also common in the north of England. There are, however, Ainsleys in South Africa so maybe  Florence  had  relatives  on  her  mother’s side. If so, there is no mention of her visiting them on arrival in Cape Town. Whatever the motive for the trip, preparations began  late  in  1933. 

Phelon  and  Moore  Ltd  of  Cleckheaton, Yorkshire were persuaded to provide a  suitable  motorcycle  combination    a  Panther model 100 single cylinder 600cc especially suited for hauling a side-car – and Watsonian donated a side-car  and  trailer.  Other  commercial  sponsors provided clothing, consumables and a tent to fit on top of the trailer. The combination was presented to Florence at the Jolly Farmers Inn in Surrey and given a hard ride over rough ground to see what might break. Apart from getting scratched and dirty, and the engine seizing briefly, the machine passed its first tough test. Once cleaned up they were ready to start and on  December  11th  1934  the  heavily  laden  ensemble, now called ‘The Venture’, received a grand send-off from the Crown House, Aldwych, London. Florence’s mother was in the crowd to see them off.

The adventure to Cape Town was recorded by Theresa in notebooks which she bequeathed to the library of the Arizona State University. Barry M Jones,  author  of  the  definitive  book  on  P&M  motorcycles, had been in contact with Theresa and obtained permission to edit her notes into a book, The  Rugged  Road.  Jones  added  an  introduction and  summary  of  Teresa’s  life  after  the  ‘rugged road’.  In  the  second  edition  he  added  more  detail, including what little is known of Florence’s post-‘road’ life. Although  it  was  Theresa  who  recorded  the  journey,   Florence   built   up   a   collection   of   newspaper  cuttings  which  were  lodged  in  the archives of the Scott Abbott Agricultural Trust.  From  the  following  quotes  it  becomes clear that Florence was more than just Theresa’s companion; she did a lot of the organisation for the trip and obtained sponsorship from the Daily Sketch, to which she sent regular telegrams and letters reporting the journey. She also wrote to Motor Cycle magazine so it was more usually Florence who was quoted by  the  press.  The Daily  Sketch was  exclusively  reporting  the  trip  and  Florence  sent  telegrams  to  it  along  the  way.  It  is  not  surprising  that  Florence  is  usually  the  first  to  be  mentioned  in  any  newspaper  articles  about  the  girls.  In  most   of   the   newspaper   photographs   it   is   Florence who is astride the bike with Teresa in the side-car.

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Florence on her Gold Star Day at Brooklands 14th April 1934

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Theresa Wallach astride her Norton motorcycle, she was a dispatch rider during WW2

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Florence after her race win at Brooklands 18th October 1933

Daily Mirror11th December 1934: ‘Two boyish young  women  motorcyclists,  aged  between  20 and 30, are embarking today on an adventurous tour  from  England  to  Capetown.  “We  cannot  afford to buy petrol and powder and cigarettes ,so we prefer to buy petrol.”’

Daily Herald12th December 1934: ‘Two young women – Miss Florence M C Blenkiron and Miss Theresa E Wallach of Cleveland Road, Ealing – set out  yesterday...  [they]  ...have  had  lessons  in  revolver  shooting  as  a  protection  against  wild  animals and hostile tribesmen.

Unknown  newspaper:  ‘They  will  be  taking turns to ride on the saddle of the motorcycle and in the side-car attached.’

Unknown   newspaper:   About   a   thousand   typists saw a spot of real life as thrilling as any film in Aldwych today. Miss Blenkiron... is the only  girl  employee  in  the  office  of  Sir  Robert  Hadfield  and  her  employer  has  given  her  a  year’s leave...’

Daily Sketch12th December 1934: ‘Miss Blenkiron said that as far as practicable they will make as near as possible a bee-line for Cape Town. “On the    way    we    shall    have    to    cross    the    Sahara.  We  are  fully  equipped,  carrying  food, petrol  and  revolvers  in  a  trailer  attached  to  our   motorcycle   combination,   and   we   shall   make our way across the desert. We know of the difficulties... our chief protection... is a revolver and 50 rounds of ammunition each.”

Daily Telegraph13th December 1934: ‘“It is the spirit of adventure that is urging us to do this” Miss Blenkiron stated “and there is also a desire to prove the superiority of a British product.”’

Uganda Herald16th January 1935 reporting on their departure from London said: ‘In a fortnight’s time, after having crossed the Sahara, they will be wearing  shorts  and  topees...  These  two  young women are attempting to do something which no man has as yet achieved.’

Theresa’s “The  Rugged  Road” describes  in  very  matter-of-fact terms the epic journey, apart from some occasional reflective and poetic musings, and there is no need to repeat most of that here. Theresa hardly mentions ‘Blenk’ as she called Florence. (Theresa was,  in  turn,  called  ‘Wal’  by  her  travelling  companion.) While Wal kept notes, both mental and  on  paper  as  well  as  photographs  and  cine  film,  Blenk  appears  not  to  have  recorded  anything.

Some idea of the privations they suffered can be  gathered  from  this  quotation  from  “The Rugged Road”: ‘Our log-book lost count of which day it was, or whether we slept or rode some nights...’ The Daily  Sketch reported  the  girls’  progress and  other  papers  published  items  taken from the Sketch.

Motor  Cycle,  date  unknown:  Miss  Blenkiron spent most of the time between their arrival (in Algiers) and the date of departure... in obtaining the necessary permits for crossing the Sahara,’

Daily  Sketch22nd  January  1935:  ‘From  InSalah... Miss Blenkiron writes to the Daily Sketch:“ In a vast wilderness, a hundred miles from the nearest human being... a side-car lug broke.”’

Motor  Cycle,  date  unknown:  ‘“As  for  our  machine,  it  is  standing  up  bravely  to  the  very harsh  treatment  it  has  been  necessary  to  give” runs a recent message from Miss Blenkiron from InSalah.’

Motor  Cycle 7th  March  1935,  reporting  on  a  letter  from  Miss  Blenkiron  in  Agadez:  ‘...they have been able to overhaul the outfit. The worst is over and Miss Blenkiron is confident that now there is no reason why they should not reach the Cape...’

Daily Sketch 16th April 1935: ‘They joined up with  Miss  Phil  Paddon,  the  Devon  girl  who  is  motoring   to   Johannesburg,   at   Kano...’   ( Phil Paddon was undertaking an 1000 mile journey to survey a road race which was due to take place in 1936, the principal section was from Algiers to Johnnesburg)

An unknown newspaper referring to the lack of   news   after   Fort   Archambault   said:   ‘Mr   Blenkiron (her father?)... was very anxious and was daily hoping for news.’

Uganda Herald 22nd May 1935: ‘Two weather tanned healthy young Amazons strolled into the Herald office  yesterday  morning...  Unlike  the modern   girl,   these   girls   would   hardly   be   interviewed by the Herald but we did manage to understand that their health had been fairly good, although  they  had  been  in  the  most  trying weather  conditions.  Their  machine...  is  being overhauled voluntarily by the Uganda Coy, which needless to say is greatly appreciated by its fair passengers.’

In the desert a con-rod bearing failed and the engine soon ground to a halt. After considerable pushing and with help from locals with horses they reached an oasis where they were stranded for over a month waiting for spare parts to reach them  from  P&M  in  England.

 By  the  time  they reached Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) ‘The entire machine was now held together by nuts and  bolts  taken  from  wherever  they  could  be spared. ... In addition to wire, string and rubber bands (cut from used inner tubes) we used our initiative – chewing gum was used to seal leaks in the fuel tank and water container.’

They arrived in Cape Town on 29th July 1935. Daily  Sketch,  date  unknown:  ‘On  arrival  in  Johannesburg  Theresa  said  “the  fact  we  are  girls does not handicap us one little bit. I do not see why more girls do not go in for trips like ours.”’ She stated their intention to cycle back again to London so at this stage she had intended to make the return journey.

Florence alone

It seemed as if the couple would return through Africa  by  a  similar  route  to  that  used  for  the  outward leg. A Motor Cycle magazine report said that Teresa had stated the ‘Venture’ to be in good shape  despite  the  statement  that  ‘the  original  outfit had been practically written off in a crash with  a  car’!

 However,  while  they  awaited  the  arrival  of  a  replacement  from  P&M  Theresa  was  reported to be in poor health and she returned to England by sea. She told Barry Jones that she was not ‘medically ill’ but ‘emotionally drained’.

Florence named the replacement Panther and side-car  ‘Venture  II’.  She  tried  to  find  a  new  partner, without success, so there was no need for the trailer when the requirements of one person could  be  carried  in  the  side-car.  The  new  bike must have been ordered before the ladies arrived in  Cape  Town  and  it  seems  that  Florence  had arranged   this   without   Theresa’s   knowledge.   Florence left Cape Town alone on 18th September with the intention of retracing her steps through Africa and the Sahara Desert, destination London. Jones speculates that the women had fallen out once  their  epic  journey  was  over,  Theresa  being upset by Florence’s relaxed attitude and not wishing to spend another period of many months with her when they now had nothing to prove. The  return  journey  was  not  documented  by Florence so there is no detail of the problems she must  have  encountered. 

The  press  mentioned broken valve springs, punctures and the fracture of a chassis tube on the side-car. By January 1936 she had reached Kano, Nigeria from where she intended to strike out across the Sahara Desert, following  the  route  used  by  the  weekly  buses. However, the authorities would not let her set out without  a  large  amount  of  money  in  case  she needed to be rescued. On the outward route the two  ladies  had  great  difficulty  traversing  large areas of soft sand and it is very doubtful whether Florence could have managed on her own, even without the trailer. Reluctantly she decided to abandon the solo journey  and  took  the  desert  bus  for  the  three-week journey to Algiers with the combination in tow, eventually arriving in London in April 1936.Her motorcycle was shown at the Selfridges store and several photographs appeared in the motor-cycling  press,  but  no  articles  describing  her homeward journey are available. Florence gave a lecture to the International Motorcyclist Touring Club in London in February 1937 but there is no published account of it, leaving us frustrated in not knowing any detail about what, for a woman on her own, must have been just as epic a journey as the outward trip by the two ladies. P&M  and  the  other  sponsors  exploited  the publicity  surrounding  Florence’s  return  and  it seems likely that she gained personally. Theresa ,however, never heard anything or received any royalties  from  the  various  companies  that  had sponsored the journey. The two appeared never to have met or to have made contact with each other after Florence’s return to England.

The rest of Theresa’s life, mostly in America, is chronicled by  Barry  Jones  in  his  appendix  to  “The  Rugged Road”. He gathered from his correspondence with her  that  she  was  quite  bitter  about  Florence,  although she softened when she heard that her former companion had died.

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Florence with the motorcycle and tent combo

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Florence doing the paperwork whilst Theresa looks on

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Farewell from the Mayoress of Bloemfontein July 1935

What Florence did next

What is known about Florence’s life after returning  from  the  African  adventure  largely  comes from a two-page typed document entitled ‘Mrs FM C Kingaby – Statement of Past Experience’ held in  the  archives  of  the  Scott  Abbott  Trust.  This  document  formed  the  basis  of  her  obituary  contributed  to  the  Daily  Telegraph by  David  Powell, manager of the farm where her husband had  been  accountant  and  where  they  lived  for over 30 years. The obituary was, in turn, used as the  major  source  of  information  for  the  Barry Jones  appendix  ‘Florence’s  later  years’  in  “The Rugged Road”.

Here is what she wrote: “Several  years  on  staff  of  Sir  R  Hadfield  Bt  (Chairman  of  Hadfields  Ltd,  Sheffield    steel  manufacturers) at his private residence – Carlton House  Terrace,  London    as  Secretary  to  his  Technical Assistant. Duties comprised shorthand, typewriting (letters and technical reports), filing, graphs, interviewing clients in his absence etc. Oct 1934 – First woman to be awarded the Gold Star for lapping Brooklands at over 100mph on a motorcycle. Dec 1934 – Resigned at own request to undertake a journey from London to Cape Town and back on a motorcycle. First person to cross the Sahara Desert by the Hoggar Route with a motorcycle and side-car. Returned April 1936. June  1936  to  Dec1938    Ran  tours  with  own Austin 18 all over the British Isles and Continent. During winter months chauffeuse-secretary. Jan  1939    Left  for  Australia  as  companion-chauffeuse.  Toured  all  over  south  east  and  northern Australia. Nov 1939 – Returned to England and joined the ATS  on  the  19th  Dec.  First  with  2nd  Echelon  clerical section but later transferred to Army Pay Office, Finsbury Circus. Oct  1940    Released  from  the  ATS  to  join  Mechanised  Transport  Corps  leaving  for  Africa and  Middle  East  with  56  ambulances.  Corps  responsible for collecting wounded coming from the desert to Cairo and transporting sick from MIrooms  to  hospital.  Became  Unit  Fitter  after  passing trade test in Cairo. Corps later transferred to Alexandria after being absorbed into ATS on instructions of the British Govt. On duty there during the battle of El Alamin (sic).July 1941 – Posted to Palestine Girl Drivers Unit at Mena near Cairo to take charge of convoys of 8cwt to 10-ton trucks and armoured vehicles, all over Egypt, Palestine and Syria. Sept 1941 – Commissioned. May  1942    Transferred  to  School  of  Military Driving and Maintenance opened at Mena. One of two officers responsible for testing drivers and teaching  maintenance  to  ATS  Palestine  girls,  Syrian  men,  British  and  other  ranks,  and  all UNNRA personnel sent to Egypt for service on the continent, the latter having to pass a driving and maintenance course before being allowed to draw military vehicles. June 1945 – Mentioned in Despatches. April  1945    In  charge  of  30  buses  driven  by Palestinian girls in Cairo for the transportation of Army Officers from place of residence to GHQ. Aug 1945 – Repatriated to India at own request to join the staff of the YWCA War Services Club in Calcutta. In charge of maintenance of very large compound and transport comprising eight trucks. May 1946 – Transferred to Bombay to take charge of YWCA War Services Club which later closed. June 1947 – My husband was released from the British  Army  in  Bombay  to  take  up  a  civilian  appointment as General Manager of the Indian and Far Eastern Branch of a large American and British pharmaceutical company with its offices situated in Bombay. May  1955    Left  at  his  own  request  as  we wished to take up farming in England. Unfortunately,  in  1959  my  husband  had  a  coronary thrombosis and we had to give up our farm. He is now  accountant  on  the  late  Mr  W  S  Abbott’s  estate at Thornhaugh. During  our  stay  in  Bombay  the  company  purchased a large estate and derelict mill outside Bombay, for the purpose of manufacturing its own preparations in India, and for 18 months I was OC  Renovations.  My  operations  consisted  of  selling hundreds of tons of mill machinery of all descriptions, complete clearance and laying out of jungle around the premises, for which purpose I controlled a large gang of Indian labourers, and supervised the reconstruction work being carried out by the building contractors.’

Even without the Brooklands Gold Star and her ride to and from Cape Town, this is an incredible story!

Settling in Cambridgeshire

As mentioned above, Kenneth Kingaby had a heart attack in 1959 and they had to give up their farm in Somerset. He obtained the post of accountant on Sacrewell Farm near Peterborough, owned by William   Scott   Abbott.   Kenneth   was   almost   certainly  given  the  job  by  David  Powell,  Scott  Abbott’s nephew, who was managing the estate during the owner’s long illness. Mr and Mrs Scott Abbott were childless and had already made plans for the farm to be put in trust. In 1964 the William Scott Abbott Trust was founded with the aims ‘to advance all forms of agricultural practices on the working farm and to provide educational facilities for the general public’. David Powell instigated a visitor  centre  on  the  farm  in  1982  and  this  has formed  the  focus  of  subsequent  developments,  including a working mill and a variety of animals. Eventually the farm land was leased to other companies to allow the Trust to concentrate on its educational remit.

The Kingabys were provided with a bungalow, Windgate Way, in woodland on a quiet part of the farm, ‘built for them’ according to David Powell’s draft obituary of Florence. When Kenneth retired the couple continued to live in the cottage until Florence suffered a very bad stroke and eventually went into a nursing home, where she died on 4thMarch 1991. Kenneth stayed on his own until he also died, about a year after Florence. David  Powell’s  successor  as  estate  manager, Mike Armitage, remembers the Kingabys as quiet and reserved. Even though they were neighbours, Mike  says  he  never  really  got  to  know  them. When he in turn retired he and his wife renovated Windgate Way and moved in.

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In India with Florence holding the fish and her husband, Kenneth Kingaby, to the right

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Florence on her way home, alone - 18th September 1935

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Florence in her garden at Windgate Way

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Theresa on the Norton 350 with which she won the Gold Star at Brooklands

Picture acknowledgements:

Scott Abbott Trust

Lincoln, Rutford and Stamford Mercury

Roger Bird